ZaSu Pitts

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ZaSu Pitts
ZaSu Pitts.jpg
Pitts in 1930
Born(1894-01-03)January 3, 1894
DiedJune 7, 1963(1963-06-07) (aged 69)
Resting place Holy Cross Cemetery
Years active1917–1963
  • (m. 1920;div. 1933)
  • John E. Woodall
    (m. 1933)
1926 Signature of Zasu Pitts, silent film actress (SAYRE 1715) (cropped).jpg

ZaSu Pitts ( /ˈszˈpɪts/ ; [1] January 3, 1894 [lower-alpha 1] – June 7, 1963) was an American actress who starred in many silent dramas, including Erich von Stroheim's epic 1924 silent film Greed , and comedies, transitioning successfully to mostly comedy films with the advent of sound films. She also appeared on numerous radio shows. Her career as an entertainer spanned nearly 50 years, and she was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960.


Early life

ZaSu Pitts was born in Parsons, Kansas, to Rulandus and Nelly (née Shay) Pitts; she was the third of four children. Her father, who had lost a leg while serving in the 76th New York Infantry in the Civil War, had settled the family in Kansas by the time ZaSu was born. [4]

The names of her father's sisters, Eliza and Susan, were purportedly the basis for the name "ZaSu", i.e., to satisfy competing family interests. It has been (incorrectly) spelled as Zazu Pitts in some film credits and news articles. Although the name is commonly mispronounced /ˈzæz/ ZAZ-oo or /ˈzs/ ZAY-soo, or /ˈzz/ ZAY-zoo, in her 1963 book Candy Hits (pg. 15), published the year of her death, the actress gave the correct pronunciation as "Say Zoo" /ˈsz/ , recounting that Mary Pickford had predicted "many will mispronounce it", and adding, "How right she was." However, when introducing herself on the September 4, 1952 episode of I've Got a Secret , she herself pronounced it as Zay-zoo. [5]

In 1903, when Pitts was nine years old, her family moved to Santa Cruz, California, to seek a warmer climate and better job opportunities. Her childhood home at 208 Lincoln Street still stands. She attended Santa Cruz High School, where she participated in school theatricals. [6]


Pitts, c. 1920 Zasu Pitts Who's Who on the Screen.jpg
Pitts, c. 1920

Pitts made her stage debut in 1914–15 doing school and local community theater in Santa Cruz. Going to Los Angeles in 1916, at the age of 22, she spent many months seeking work as a film extra. Finally, she was discovered for substantive roles in films by screenwriter Frances Marion, who cast Pitts as an orphaned slavey (child of work) in the silent film A Little Princess (1917), starring Pickford.

Pitts's popularity grew following a series of Universal one-reeler comedies, and earned her first feature-length lead in King Vidor's Better Times (1919). The following year she married her first husband, Tom Gallery, with whom she was paired in several films, including Heart of Twenty (1920), Bright Eyes, Patsy (both 1921) and A Daughter of Luxury (1922).

David Butler and Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama Better Times Better Times 1919.jpg
David Butler and Pitts look lovingly at each other while Jack McDonald glares in a scene still for the 1919 silent drama Better Times

Pitts enjoyed her greatest fame in the early 1930s, often starring in B movies and comedy short films, teamed with Thelma Todd. [lower-alpha 2] She played secondary parts in many films. Her stock persona (a fretful, flustered, worried spinster) made her instantly recognizable and was often imitated in cartoons and other films. She starred in a number of Hal Roach short films and features, often in partnership with Thelma Todd as two trouble-prone working girls. At Universal she co-starred in a series of feature-length comedies with Slim Summerville. Switching between comedy short films and features, by the advent of sound, she became a specialist in comedy roles.

Dramatic potential

ZaSu Pitts had hidden talents as a dramatic actress. She was given the greatest tragic role of her career in Erich von Stroheim's 7+12-hour epic Greed (1924). The surprise casting initially shocked Hollywood, but showed that Pitts could draw tears with her doleful demeanor, as well as laughs. Having been extensively edited prior to release — the final theatrical cut ran just over two hours — the movie failed initially at the box office, but has since been restored to over four hours and is considered one of the greatest films ever made. [8] [9] Based on her performance, von Stroheim labeled ZaSu Pitts "the greatest dramatic actress." He also featured her in his films The Honeymoon (1928), The Wedding March (1928), and Walking Down Broadway. Pitts's performance in Walking Down Broadway was dramatic, with her character showing a repressed romantic interest in her girlfriend; the studio reshot these scenes with Pitts, now playing the girl's companion for laughs, and von Stroheim's directorial credit was removed from the film. [10] The film was finally released in 1933, much changed, as Hello, Sister! .

ZaSu Pitts was so recognizable in comedies that the public didn't take her dramatic efforts seriously. In the classic war drama All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), Pitts was cast as the distraught mother of young soldier Lew Ayres, but at preview screenings her intense performance drew unintentional laughs. Her scenes were refilmed with Beryl Mercer. In 1936 RKO needed a replacement actress for its Hildegarde Withers series of murder mysteries; Edna May Oliver had left the studio and Helen Broderick succeeded Oliver in the role. Pitts was chosen to succeed Broderick. In theory, it was a good idea: Pitts seemed to fit the role of a prim, spinster schoolmistress. However, mystery fans couldn't accept the fluttery Pitts as a brainy sleuth who matched wits with the police, and after her two Withers films the series was abandoned. [11]

Radio and stage

Beginning in the 1930s, Pitts found work in radio. She appeared several times in the earliest Fibber McGee and Molly shows, playing a dizzy dame constantly looking for a husband. When Marian Jordan temporarily withdrew from Fibber McGee and Molly due to illness, Pitts made guest appearances opposite Jim Jordan as Fibber. Pitts also guested on variety shows, trading banter with Bing Crosby, Al Jolson, W.C. Fields, and Rudy Vallee, among others. She played Miss Mamie Wayne in the soap opera Big Sister . [2] , and was heard as Miss Pitts on The New Lum and Abner Show . [12]

In 1944, Pitts tackled Broadway, making her debut in the mystery Ramshackle Inn . The play, written expressly for her, did well, and she took the show on the road in later years. She was also a familiar attraction in summer-stock theaters, playing annually in the Norma Mitchell play Post Road.

Postwar movies and television

Postwar films continued to give her the chance to play comic snoops and flighty relatives in such fare as Life with Father (1947), but in the 1950s, she started focusing on television. This culminated in her best-known series role, playing second banana to Gale Storm in CBS's The Gale Storm Show (1956) (also known as Oh, Susanna), in the role of Elvira Nugent ("Nugie"), the shipboard beautician. In 1961, Pitts was cast opposite Earle Hodgins in the episode "Lonesome's Gal" of the ABC sitcom Guestward, Ho! , set on a dude ranch in New Mexico. In 1962, she appeared in an episode of CBS's Perry Mason , "The Case of the Absent Artist". Her final role was as Gertie, the switchboard operator in the Stanley Kramer comedy epic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

Personal life

Pitts and husband John Woodall circa 1935 ZaSu Pitts and John Woodall.jpg
Pitts and husband John Woodall circa 1935

Pitts was married to actor Thomas Sarsfield Gallery from 1920 until their 1933 divorce. Gallery became a Los Angeles boxing promoter and later a TV executive. The couple had two children:

In 1933, Pitts married John Edward "Eddie" Woodall, with whom she remained until her death.[ citation needed ]

Declining health dominated Pitts's later years, particularly after she was diagnosed with cancer in the mid-1950s. She continued to work, appearing on TV and making brief appearances in the films The Thrill of It All and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World . She died in Hollywood on June 7, 1963, aged 69, and was interred at Holy Cross Cemetery, Culver City. [2] Pitts wrote a book of candy recipes, Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts, which was published posthumously in 1963.[ citation needed ]


Trailer for Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) ZaSu Pitts in Ruggles of Red Gap trailer.jpg
Trailer for Ruggles of Red Gap (1935)

ZaSu Pitts was inducted to the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960, for her contribution to motion pictures. [15] Her star is on the south side of the 6500 block of Hollywood Boulevard. [16]

In 1994, she was honored with her image on a United States postage stamp along with fellow actors Rudolph Valentino, Clara Bow and Charlie Chaplin as part of The Silent Screen Stars stamp set, designed by caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. [6] [17] Her birthplace of Parsons, Kansas, has a star tile at the entrance to the Parsons Theatre to commemorate her. [18]

In the film Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941), W.C. Fields asks his niece, played by Gloria Jean, "Don't you want to go to school? You want to grow up and be dumb like ZaSu Pitts?" Gloria Jean replied "She only acts like that in pictures. I like her." [19]

Actress Mae Questel, who performed character voices in Max Fleischer's Popeye and Betty Boop cartoons, reportedly based the fluttering utterances of Olive Oyl on Pitts. [20]


1917 Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm Undetermined RoleUncredited
1917 '49–'17 Party GuestUncredited
1917 The Little Princess Becky
1918 A Modern Musketeer A Kansas BelleUncredited
1918 How Could You Jean? Oscar's SweetheartLost film
1918 The Talk of the Town
1918 The Greatest Thing in Life (scenes deleted), Lost film
1919 A Lady's Name Emily
1919 As the Sun Went Down Sal Sue
1919 Men, Women, and Money Katie JonesLost film
1919 Better Times Nancy ScroggsUndetermined/presumably lost
1919 The Other Half Jennie Jones, The Jazz Kid
1919 Poor Relations Daisy Perkins
1920Bright SkiesSally
1920Heart of TwentyKatie Abbott
1920Seeing It ThroughBetty Lawrence
1921 Patsy Patsy
1922 Is Matrimony a Failure? Mrs. WilburLost film
1922 For the Defense Jennie Dunn
1922 Youth to Youth EmilyLost film
1922 A Daughter of Luxury Mary Cosgrove
1923 Mary of the Movies HerselfCameo role, Incomplete
1923 The Girl Who Came Back Anastasia Muldoon
1923 Souls for Sale HerselfCameo role
1923 Three Wise Fools Mickey
1923 Hollywood HerselfCameo role, lost film
1923 Poor Men's Wives Apple Annie
1923Tea: With a Kick!'Brainy' Jones
1923 West of the Water Tower Dessie ArnhaltLost film
1924 Daughters of Today Lorena
1924 The Goldfish Amelia Pugsley
1924 Triumph A Factory Girl
1924 Changing Husbands Delia
1924 The Legend of Hollywood Mary Brown
1924 Wine of Youth Lucy(scenes deleted)
1924 The Fast Set MonaLost film
1924 Secrets of the Night Celia Stebbins
1924 Greed TrinaFilm is extant, but original 42 reel version is lost
1924Sunlight of Paris
1925 The Great Divide Polly Jordan
1925 The Re-Creation of Brian Kent Judy
1925 Old Shoes
1925 Pretty Ladies Maggie KeenanFilm is extant, but technicolor sequence is lost
1925 A Woman's Faith Blanche Odile
1925 The Business of Love Miss Wright
1925 Thunder Mountain Mandy Coulter
1925 Lazybones Ruth Fanning
1925 Wages for Wives Luella LoganLost film
1925 The Great Love NancyLost film
1926 Mannequin Annie Pogani
1926 What Happened to Jones Hilda
1926 Monte Carlo Hope Durant
1926 Early to Wed Mrs. Dugan
1926 Sunny Side Up Evelyn
1926 Risky Business Agnes Wheaton
1926 Her Big Night Gladys Smith
1927 Casey at the Bat Camille Gibson
1928 Wife Savers GermaineLost film; silent
1928 13 Washington Square MathildeSilent
1928 Buck Privates HuldaSilent
1928 The Wedding March Cecelia SchweisserSilent
1928 Sins of the Fathers Mother Spengler"part-talkie"
1929 The Dummy Rose Gleason
1929 The Squall Lena
1929 Twin Beds Tillie
1929 The Argyle Case Mrs. WyattLost film, only the sounds to reels 3, 5, 7, and 9 survive, and possibly the soundtrack
1929 Her Private Life Timmins
1929 Oh, Yeah! The Elk
1929 Paris HarrietLost, only the soundtrack survives
1929 The Locked Door Telephone Girl
1929 This Thing Called Love Clara BertrandLost, only the technicolor sequence survives
1930 No, No, Nanette Pauline HastingsLost, only the soundtrack survives
1930 Honey Mayme
1930 All Quiet on the Western Front Frau BäumerSilent version trailer only; scenes deleted
1930 The Devil's Holiday Ethel
1930 The Little Accident Monica
1930 The Squealer Bella
1930 Monte Carlo Bertha
1930 War Nurse Cushie
1930 The Lottery Bride Hilda
1930 River's End Louise
1930 Sin Takes a Holiday Annie
1930 The Honeymoon Caecilia Lost film; released only in Europe
1930 Free Love Ada
1930 Passion Flower Mrs. Harney
1931 Finn and Hattie Mrs. Haddock
1931 Bad Sister Minnie
1931 Beyond Victory Mademoiselle Fritzi
1931 Seed Jennie
1931 A Woman of Experience Katie
1931 Their Mad Moment Miss Dibbs
1931 The Big Gamble Nora Dugan
1931 Penrod and Sam Mrs. BassettAlternative title: The Adventures of Penrod and Sam
1931 The Guardsman Liesl, the Maid
1931 The Secret Witness Bella
1931 On the Loose ZasuShort film
1932 The Unexpected Father Polly Perkins
1932 Broken Lullaby Anna, Holderlin's Maid
1932 Steady Company Dot
1932 Shopworn Aunt Dot
1932 Destry Rides Again Temperance WorkerAlternative title: Justice Rides Again
1932 The Trial of Vivienne Ware Gladys Fairweather
1932 Strangers of the Evening Sybil Smith
1932 Westward Passage Mrs. Truesdale
1932 Is My Face Red? Morning Gazette Telephone Operator
1932 Make Me a Star Mrs. Scudder
1932 Roar of the Dragon Gabby Woman
1932 The Vanishing Frontier Aunt Sylvia
1932 Blondie of the Follies Gertie
1932 Back Street Mrs. Dole
1932 The Crooked Circle Nora Rafferty
1932 Once in a Lifetime Miss Leyton
1932 Madison Square Garden Florrie
1932 They Just Had to Get Married Molly Hull
1933 Out All Night Bunny
1933 Hello, Sister! Millie
1933 Professional Sweetheart Elmerada de Leon
1933 Her First Mate Mary Horner
1933 Love, Honor, and Oh Baby! Connie Clark
1933 Aggie Appleby, Maker of Men Sybby 'Sib'
1933 Meet the Baron ZaSu
1933 Mr. Skitch Maddie Skitch
1934 The Meanest Gal in Town Tillie Prescott
1934 Two Alone Esthey Roberts
1934 Three on a Honeymoon Alice Mudge
1934 Sing and Like It Annie Snodgrass
1934 Love Birds Araminta Tootle
1934 Private Scandal Miss Coates
1934 Dames Matilda Ounce Hemingway
1934 Their Big Moment Tillie Whim
1934 Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch Miss Hazy
1934 The Gay Bride Mirabelle
1935 Ruggles of Red Gap Prunella Judson
1935 Spring Tonic Maggie Conklin
1935 Going Highbrow Mrs. Cora Upshaw
1935 She Gets Her Man Esmeralda
1935 Hot Tip Belle McGill
1935 The Affair of Susan Susan ToddAlternative title: Alone Together
1936 Thirteen Hours by Air Miss Harkins
1936 Mad Holiday Mrs. Kinney
1936 The Plot Thickens Hildegarde Withers
1936 Sing Me a Love Song Gwen Logan
1937 Wanted! Winnie Oatfield
1937 Merry Comes to Town Winnie Oatfield
1937 Forty Naughty Girls Hildegarde Withers
1937 52nd Street Letitia Rondell
1939 The Lady's from Kentucky Dulcey Lee
1939 Naughty but Nice Aunt Penelope Hardwick
1939 Mickey the Kid Lilly Handy
1939 Nurse Edith Cavell Mme. Moulin
1939 Eternally Yours Mrs. Cary Bingham
1940 It All Came True Miss Flint
1940 No, No, Nanette Pauline Hastings
1941 Broadway Limited Myra
1941 Niagara Falls Emmy Sawyer
1941 Weekend for Three Anna
1941 Miss Polly Miss Pandora Polly
1941 The Mexican Spitfire's Baby Miss Emily Pepper
1941 Uncle Joe Julia Jordan - the Widow
1942 Mexican Spitfire at Sea Miss Pepper
1942 The Bashful Bachelor Geraldine
1942 So's Your Aunt Emma Aunt Emma BatesAlternative title: Meet the Mob
1942 Tish Aggie Pilkington
1943 Let's Face It! Cornelia Figeson
1946 Breakfast in Hollywood Elvira Spriggens
1947 Life with Father Cousin Cora Cartwright
1950 Francis Nurse Valerie Humpert
1952 Denver and Rio Grande Jane Dwyer
1954 Francis Joins the WACS Lt. Valerie Humpert
1957 This Could Be the Night Mrs. Katie Shea - Landlady
1961 The Teenage Millionaire Aunt Theodora
1963 The Thrill of It All OliviaReleased posthumously; filmed in 1962
1963 It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World Gertie - Switchboard OperatorReleased posthumously; filmed in 1962; (final film role)

Television credits

1949 Lum and Abner Miss PittsEpisode: "Pilot"
1954 The Best of Broadway Miss PreenEpisode: "The Man Who Came to Dinner"
1955 Screen Directors Playhouse SelmaEpisode: "The Silent Partner"
1956 The 20th Century Fox Hour Miss AppletonEpisode: "Mr. Belvedere"
1956–1960 The Gale Storm Show Elvira Nugent91 episodes
1957 Private Secretary Aunt MarthaEpisode: "Not Quite Paradise"
1960 The Dennis O'Keefe Show Loretta KimballEpisode: "Dimples"
1961 Guestward, Ho! Episode: "Lonesome's Gal"
1962 Perry Mason Daphne WhilomEpisode: "The Case of the Absent Artist"
1963 Burke's Law Mrs. BowieEpisode: "Who Killed Holly Howard?" Posthumous Air Date

See also


  1. Pitts's year of birth is difficult to pinpoint. Kansas did not keep birth records prior to 1911. Many sources, including Halliwell's Filmgoer's Companion, give 1898 as the year; her obituary in the New York Times gives 1900, which also appears on her headstone; Pitts biographer Stumpf gives 1894 [2] and Notable American Women points out that the 1900 US Census gives her age as six years old. [3]
  2. Todd and she are listed by Variety as the top two actors in number of film roles in the early 1930s (pre-1933). [7]

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  1. ZaSu Pitts (1963). Candy Hits by ZaSu Pitts. Duell, Sloan and Pearce. p. 15.
  2. 1 2 3 Charles Stumpf (2010). ZaSu Pitts: The Life and Career. McFarland. pp. 3, 82, 100, 103–104. ISBN   978-0-7864-6023-6.
  3. Harold J. Salemson (1980). "ZaSu Pitts". In Barbara Sicherman; Carol Hurd Green (eds.). Notable American Women: The Modern Period. A Biographical Dictionary . Harvard University Press. pp.  547–548. ISBN   978-0-674-62733-8.
  4. Phil Reader. Mike Brown (ed.). "Rulandus Pitts". 76th New York State Volunteers "The Cortland Regiment". Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  5. "I've Got a Secret, September 4, 1952". YouTube . Archived from the original on December 12, 2021.
  6. 1 2 Barbara Giffen (1984). "ZaSu Pitts: Actress 1898–1963". Santa Cruz Public Library. Retrieved June 7, 2010.
  7. "Who's Grabbin' The Jobs: Hollywood Has Its Chosen Few". Variety. 110 (10): 3. May 16, 1933. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  8. Koszarski, Richard (1983). Von: The Life and Films of Erich Von Stroheim. Hal Leonard Corporation. p. 168. ISBN   0879109548.
  9. Klepper, Robert K. (2005). Silent Films, 1877-1996: A Critical Guide to 646 Movies. McFarland. p. 286. ISBN   0786421649.
  10. Don Miller, B Movies, Curtis Books, New York, 1973.
  11. Stuart Palmer (2013). Hildegarde Withers in The Riddle of the Blueblood Murders. Wildside Press LLC. p. 4. ISBN   978-1-4344-4637-4.
  12. Terrace, Vincent (1999). Radio Programs, 1924-1984: A Catalog of More Than 1800 Shows. McFarland & Company, Inc. p. 255. ISBN   978-0-7864-4513-4.
  13. Marston 2010, p. 121.
  14. Donnelley 2003, p. 390.
  15. "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Walk of Fame. Hollywood Chamber of Commerce. Retrieved September 28, 2014.
  16. Christopher Smith (March 3, 2010). "ZaSu Pitts". Hollywood Star Walk. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  17. "29-cent Zasu Pitts single". Arago—People, Postage & the Post: Silent Screen Stars. Smithsonian, National Postal Museum. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  18. "ZaSu Pitts". Kansapedia. Kansas Historical Society. April 2013. Retrieved March 7, 2015.
  19. "ZaSu PItts: The Life and Career (2010) – By James L. Neibaur". Rogue Cinema. Retrieved January 27, 2018.
  20. Daniel Eagan (2010). America's Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Film Registry. A&C Black. p. 254. ISBN   978-0-8264-2977-3.


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  2. Marston, Jack (2010). "Siren Song: The Tragedy of Barbara La Marr". In Tibbetts, John C; Welsh, James M (eds.). American Classic Screen Profiles. Scarecrow. ISBN   978-0810876767.